A startling discovery: Happiness still exists

June 02, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

In the heart of West Baltimore, I ask Janet Floyd if she is happy. She doesn't hesitate. "Yes I am," she answers simply.

"Seriously?"

"Seriously," she says. "My life has had its ups and downs, but I wake up every morning -- God opens up my eyes to bright sunshine. I'm not sickly. I have my health. So, yes, I'm happy."

Mrs. Floyd is a pleasant, middle-aged woman dressed in a simple cotton skirt and flowered blouse. We are sitting on a stoop in the 500 block of Laurens Street, not far from the business district along Pennsylvania Avenue. This is a neatly kept neighborhood of row homes and concrete stoops. Many of the people on the block have lived here for a long time and care about their homes.

But all around them -- a block in either direction -- are the ubiquitous signs of urban decay: vacant lots and boarded buildings and trash in the streets. Officials say this part of West Baltimore has one of the highest crime rates in the city; the sickliest residents; and the most unemployed. It is an area beset by drug abuse and alcoholism; where churches seem to alternate with liquor stores and where the young men stand in small groups on street corners, staring menacingly at passers-by.

"Violence is a fact of life," says Mrs. Floyd's daughter Marlene. "It is all around us. You think about it every time you go to work or to the market. In this neighborhood, anything could happen."

"So, how can you be happy with so much ugliness around you?" I ask.

"You don't dwell on those kinds of things," answers Mrs. Floyd. "I find God for my happy moments. I know I've tried to do right all my life. I've been married to the same man for 40 years. All of that makes life beautiful."

"Happiness has to come from within," adds Marlene.

Yesterday was a bright, sunshiny, spring day; warm, but with a nice, steady breeze. It was the kind of day that used to bring me great joy. But I seem to have lost something lately. I feel weighed down, tired, empty -- as if I have been wrung dry by the relentless misery in the daily news. Do I feel happy? No. I am not sad, but I cannot say I am happy either.

So, I went out yesterday to talk to people about this. I expected them to share this feeling. In fact, I expected many people to feel even worse.

But everywhere I went yesterday, people said they were happy. They said they found happiness in the little things that loom large: Good health and family and nice weather. They said they found happiness in their religious faith and in their genuine belief that life will get better.

At first, I refused to believe them. I picked and probed like an investigative reporter. I tried to break through what seemed to be a facade and force them to admit that no, happiness no longer exists anywhere. Sometimes, I threw up my hands and asked, "How?" "Why?"

"I don't know why," answers Marlene. "I just feel happy."

"Has your life been so great, then?" I persist. "Do you have everything you ever wanted?"

Marlene thinks about this for a moment. She's a young woman, perhaps in her mid-20s. "I'd say I've got about 50 percent of what I wanted," she answers after considering the question. "My happiest time was when I graduated from high school because it made my mother and my father proud and because I was determined that I wouldn't drop out, that I'd get my degree."

Since then, she has sought a degree in nursing, shifting from school to school as her work schedule and finances allow. Right now, she is unemployed. She hopes to return to Coppin State College next semester.

"I never got my high school degree," Mrs. Floyd tells me. "I got married real young and dropped out of school and had children. So you see, my life has had its ups and downs."

Across the street, Russell Billups is sitting under a tree in his backyard. He is a big man with deeply lined skin; a former longshoreman who has lived in this community since the 1930s. He looks amused at my question.

"I'm sitting here aren't I?" he demands. "I'm 81 years old so you better believe I feel happy just to wake up in the morning."

All in all, I had a strange day yesterday. I went out, seeking sorrow, and found the opposite. Know what? It made me happy.

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